If you Google the term “sounds like science fiction” today you’ll get over 241,000,000 results. If you look back a mere seven years, to the days when the RAZR phone was the most advanced thing in your pocket, you’ll realise that the world we live in is a rapidly changing place. As the boundary between fiction and reality continue to merge, in five years time today’s cutting edge advances will be seen as laughably limited.
This change means that the tech we surround ourselves with, use each day, and depend on at an integral level is increasingly resembling science fiction, and not in an entirely positive way. Technologies are appearing that seem to have been lifted straight from the pages of a dystopian novel; devices which make you sick if you talk, insect sized drones, and a machine capable of creating black holes are all part of the world we live in today. Given the current rate of technological advancement the future has the potential to be, variously, an extremely productive and an extremely dark place.
The difficulty with putting robots in the workplace is that they don’t care about their human co-workers. In addition to displacing huge swathes of industry, any automated employees can be a danger to their soft tissued colleagues; they’re much stronger, rarely aware of their surroundings past the piece of metal they’re soldering, and don’t tend to notice if a human hand happens to get in the way.
Enter Baxter, an industrial robot developed by a startup named Rethink Robotics. He’s a three foot tall, 306 Ib, two armed worker capable of displaying various ‘expressions’ on the screen which serves as a face. His eyes show the direction of his attention, and if a human ignores this and gets in the way, despite his strength he will know not to put a hand through their chest. His most groundbreaking feature is his ability to learn via simple teaching techniques that anyone, no matter their technological ability, can run him through. Essentially, Baxter will work alongside you safely whilst you teach him how to do your job, which will eventually lead to the fairly inevitable conclusion of your job loss.
Whether you’re a cat or a dog person, you’ll know how your pet responds to your touch. Tickling, stroking, or scratching will either illicit adoration or apathy depending on the species. In 2008, some members of British Columbia University’s SPIN lab decided that what the world really need was a piece of technology that mimicked this, producing a furry, touch sensitive ball of fluff named the ‘Haptic Creature’.
This technology evolved into what is known as the Cuddlebot, which is envisaged to be used therapeutically in hospitals, or with children (with whom it is unsurprisingly a hit). Despite its utility there’s something more than a little sad about the replacement of pets with a faceless, battery powered alternative.
8. Micro Drones
At the moment these 3cm RoboBees require a tether to power their 120-beats-per minute wings, and to receive their instructions. It’s taken scientists at Harvard over a decade to develop the techniques involved in the creation of highly precise sub-millimetre mechanics, but by drawing inspiration from pop-up books they were able to create what is thought to be the smallest man-made wingspan to achieve flight.
If and when the power problem is resolved these tiny robots could well replace the dwindling population of bees (which pollinate 24% of all US crops), but could also be used for search and rescue, and inevitably for military purposes.
The science of affecting weather patterns (sometimes known as geoengineering) is a huge industry in modern China, which employs over 50,000 people to create rain in areas affected by drought, and to prevent poor weather from affecting military displays and important events such as the Beijing Olympics. Part of the preparations for the 60th anniversary of communist party rule included 18 cloud-seeding aircraft and 48 vehicles designed to combat fog.
Even though geoengineering is admitted to be a long shot away from an exact science, in 2013 it was announced that the CIA was investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into a partnership with the National Academy of Science in an effort to understand how to control the weather.
6. The Singularity (Artificial Machine Intelligence)
For anyone who’s dealt with a computer on an automated phone line, or tried to use Siri for any question more difficult than ‘is it raining?’, the idea of hyper intelligent machines may seem a touch farfetched. And Depp‘s latest movie ‘Transcendence’ only helps to relegate the subject further into science fiction. However far off the idea of Artificial Intelligence may seem, a group of science’s brightest minds recently came together to warn the world about the risks of the current ‘IT arms race’.
Although this seems like an opening scene in a substandard thriller, the group of scientists (which includes Stephen Hawking) notes that the competition which is taking place between some of the largest tech companies is ‘fuelled by unprecedented investments and building on an increasingly mature theoretical foundation.’ Although the potential benefits are unprecedented, (AI would enable a ‘magnification’ of human intelligence) the risks are impossible to fully understand. In near future terms, this topic can be seen in the debate surrounding partially automated or near-autonomous weapons systems, which the UN has seen fit to ban, but in the long run it is impossible to say how important or dangerous hyper-intelligent computers could be.
5. Genetic Assassinations
In 2012 an article in The Atlantic stated that the US government was surreptitiously collecting the DNA of the world’s leaders and high ranking UN officials. The same article describes how the secret service collects all bedsheets, glasses, and objects the president touches in order to destroy them and lower the chance of his genetic material being stolen.
Both of these practices may seem odd, but the article goes on to show how an assassin could feasibly use a personalised pathogen to murder a VIP. The positive applications of the advances in genetics are multiple, with many scientists seeing personalised medicines as the future of healthcare, but the increasingly cheap and simple field of genetics is an area that receives its fair share of criticism. It’s a particularly scary concept when you consider the fact that we all constantly leave a genetic trail on the environments with which we interact.
4. 3D Printing
Since it exploded into the public consciousness over a year ago, 3D printing has gone from strength to strength. Bikinis, guitars, bikes, replacement jaw bones, and models of unborn foetuses (which a Japanese natal clinic offers its clients) have all been created by 3D printers which are now available to the general public at fairly affordable prices.
These products, however, aren’t the ones that are getting people up in arms; instead it is the fact that blueprints for pistols, revolvers, and even rifles can be found online, downloaded, and printed by anyone with access to the internet and a printer. Aside from the issue of policing these weapons, there is the added problem that they contain next to no metal, and are therefore difficult to detect with traditional measures.
3. The Large Hadron Collider
In the days leading up to the turning on of the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s largest and most expensive scientific experiment – there was a group of scientists who lobbied to have the machine deconstructed. They stated that there was a small chance that this 18 mile long, £4bn machine would create a mini black hole which would destroy first the earth, then two seconds later the moon, then after 8 minutes the sun.
The scientists and engineers of CERN have always laughed off this possibility, but there’s no avoiding the fact that the machine is designed to replicate the conditions of the Big Bang. Thus far the LHC hasn’t destroyed anyone, despite creating 600 million atomic collisions per second which generate temperatures 100,000 times hotter than those found at the centre of the sun.
2. Speech Jammer Gun
The abstract rights to free speech and privacy, to which much of the West is supposedly committed, have received quite the battering in recent years. Wikileaks and Snowden have shown how our movements can be tracked and monitored with the greatest ease, whilst the UK and US governments continue to legally treat suspected terrorists as criminals.
Although the Speech Jammer gun functions on a much smaller scale than the PRISM network, in person it is a much more effective way to suppress dissidents. Developed by Japanese scientists, the device creates a sensation of nausea by replaying the sound of a voice with a small delay, leading to a sensory confusion which makes it is extremely difficult to keep talking.
1. Non Lethal Pain Ray
If the Speech Jammer doesn’t do the job, then the US has developed the next step up. The Pentagon’s ‘Heat Ray’ is designed to disperse crowds of people from a distance by heating the top layer of skin. For the moment the device doesn’t function in rain or snow, and requires an enormous amount of energy, but in the right conditions it creates a blast of excruciating heat which leads to its target instinctively moving away.
The applications of this device, which was developed by Raytheon, are obvious and frightening. Because it is non-lethal, and results in injury less than 01.% of the time (1 in 1000), it is feasible that this could even be used by a Western government interested in suppressing dissident activity among its own population.